Thursday, December 06, 2012

Evangelical activism

My second objection to the hermeneutic of the evangelical political activists is how they use the Mosaic Law. According to many in this movement, the Mosaic Law should serve as the basis for civil law. From a hermeneutical standpoint, this is puzzling to say the least. The Mosaic Law is part of the Sinaitic Covenant between the nation of Israel and God. In fact, the two are used interchangeably in Scripture. It is one thing for us to argue that the Law of Moses would serve this purpose well. It is another thing to leap to the assertion that gentile governments “ought” to use the Mosaic Law as their basis for civil law. It is even a bigger stretch for the Church to insert itself into the process by issuing such commands or by employing political strategy to move the governments in that direction. There is no precedent in Scripture for this use of the Law or for this function of the Church.

It follows that any attempt to bring a believer under the Mosaic Law is not in keeping with a consistent hermeneutic. Moreover, it is especially tragic when the politico-faith movement attempts to employ a very inconsistent hermeneutic in order to issue imperatives around applying the Law of Moses to unbelieving civil governments. Scripture is clear that it is a serious matter to use the Law in an unlawful manner. Using the Law to obligate civil authorities to fashion civil code is not a proper use of the law nor is it the role of the Church. We come back to the question of rules of interpretation. If God made His Law with the nation of Israel, who can say that man is free to expand that Law, that covenant, to the rest of the nations?

The hermeneutic of evangelical political activism, which I have also referred to as the politico-faith movement proves to be inconsistent in that it violates the rules of interpretation. The method neglects to ascertain the meaning and application of a text to its original audience before seeking its own understanding and application. This opens the method up to an anachronistic approach on the question of social good in Greco-Roman times, politics in the modern era, and how these two relate to one another. The argument commits the fallacy of negative inference when it contends that Christians must engage in political activism if they wish to carry out their duty to be a moral influence in the culture. The argue fails to prove what it assumes to be true.

In addition, the hermeneutics of evangelical political activism uses the Mosaic Law unlawfully by subverting God’s intent for that Law and imposing it on gentile governments. Moreover, the movement presumes it to be the role of the Church, individuals within the Christian community if you will, to interpret that Law and engage in the actions necessary to inform the government of its duty. In other words, it is perfectly right for the Church to manipulate politicians into submission through political activism in order to shape the culture into one that certain evangelicals think we should have. Scripture nowhere imposes the Mosaic Law on believers, let alone gentile unbelievers. Furthermore, Scripture does not place this responsibility on the Church.

i) Ed is operating from a Dispensational Baptist paradigm. However, even if you subscribe to Dispensational Baptist theology, that doesn’t require you to write off OT ethics the way Ed does. For instance, Norman Geisler is a Dispensational Baptist, yet he says:

All the moral principles of the Moses’s law were reaffirmed in the New Testament. For example, nine of the Ten Commandments are reaffirmed. All but the Sabbath were restated, and even here the principle of setting one day in seven was reaffirmed…

Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Baker, 2nd ed., 1989) 203.

Likewise, Dan Phillips is a Dispensational Baptist who recently published God’s Wisdom in Proverbs.

ii) It’s polemically useful for opponents of evangelical political activism to caricature that position as if it necessarily means using law and politics to morally transform the general culture. However, I haven’t proposed anything that ambitious. What I’ve been arguing for is far more modest.

What I’ve proposed is an essentially defensive policy. Christians have a duty to protect their dependents. They also have a duty to protect the most vulnerable members of society, viz. the young, elderly, disabled, working poor. According to Scripture, loyalty to a good friend is also a social duty.

iii) Ironically, Ed is the one who suffers from a very flatfooted grasp of Biblical hermeneutics and cross-cultural contextualization. In this post and the sequel post, I’m going to quote extensively from two noted Bible scholars who demonstrate the steps we should take in applying Bible ethics, including OT ethics, to our contemporary political scene.


Attitudes to the Roman Empire in the NT writings vary according to the circumstances of the Church at the time and place of writing. But from a fairly early stage of Christian history there was sporadic conflict provoked by the Roman State’s demand for absolute political loyalty expressed in religious form as worship of the Roman Emperor and the traditional gods of Rome. This demand met the Christian refusal to acknowledge any absolute lordship other than Christ’s. The inevitability of the conflict with the state is seen most clearly in the book of Revelation, which uses the literary form of the apocalypse to uncover the deep religious truth of the political situation in the late first century. A remarkable feature of the book is that it is far from confining its criticism of Rome to the issue of Rome’s persecution of Christians, but sees this issue as bringing to the surface evils which were deeply rooted in the whole system of Roman imperial power. This feature makes Revelation one of the fiercest attacks on Rome and one of the most effective pieces of political resistance literature from the period of the early Roman Empire.

Those who imagine early Christianity as a quietist and apolitical movement should study the book of Revelation. So should those who suppose that the early church found nothing to criticize in Rome rule except the imperial cult. In Revelation’s exposure of the evil of Rome, the worship of the Emperor and the consequent persecution of the Church are not an isolated aberration, but follow from the fundamental nature of the Roman Empire: Rome’s single-minded pursuit of her own power and economic advantage. When the followers of Jesus refused the act of religious loyalty to the Emperor required by the state religion, they were not only denying to Caesar the unconditional loyalty that belonged only to the truly divine King. They witnessed also to a different kind of rule from Caesar’s. A Kingdom founded not only exploitative power but on sacrificial service.

R. Bauckham, The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically (WJK, 2nd ed., 2011), 85,101.

The difference between the testaments might be better expressed in terms of a difference of political context. Much of the OT is addressed to a people of God which was a political entity and for much of its history had at least some degree of political autonomy. The OT is therefore directly concerned with the ordering of Israel’s political life, the conduct of political affairs, the formulation of policies, the responsibilities of rulers as well as subjects, and so on. The NT is addressed to a politically powerless minority in the Roman Empire. Its overly political material therefore largely concerns the responsibilities of citizens and subjects who, though they might occasionally hope to impress the governing authorities by prophetic witness (Mt 10:18), had no ordinary means of political influence (3).

When Christians are asked to explain why an OT political provision should not, in their view, be applied to present-day political circumstances, they most often make one of two types of response. One is an appeal to a difference of cultural context: what made political sense in ancient Israelite society may not do so in modern technological society. This is a consideration which applies equally to the relevance of NT teaching…

Alternately, however, appeal may be made to a difference of “dispensational” context.

1. It can be argued that the NT ethics, say in the Sermon on the Mount, are an advance on OT ethical teaching, which therefore becomes to some extent obsolete.

2. It can be argued that OT Israel was in the unique position of being a theocratic state, and cannot therefore provide a political model for the NT era, in which God’s people are not a political entity but scattered throughout the nations. (In passing, it may be noted that in fact the OT itself faced the political issues of a diaspora people of God, and provided not only some guidance for Jewish subjects of pagan states (Jer 29), but also examples of Jews exercising political authority or influence in pagan states: Joseph, Daniel and his friends, and Esther and Mordecai.)

In view of this complexity, some may be tempted to dismiss the political relevance of the OT altogether. But there is a good reason for not doing so. God and his purposes for human life remain the same in both testaments, and it is primarily the character of God and his purposes for human life which are expressed in the political material in the OT. They are expressed in forms appropriate to the specific conditions of OT Israel: both the specific cultural context (or contexts) of a nation living in that time and place, and also the specific salvation-historical context of the national people of God in the period before the coming of Christ. This means that, while the law and the prophets cannot be instructions for our political life, they can be instructive for our political life. We cannot apply their teaching directly to ourselves, but from the way in which God expressed his character and purposes in the political life of Israel we may learn something of how they should be expressed in political life today.

This means that our first concern should not be to select those parts of the OT which still apply today. None of it applies directly to us, as instructions, but all of it is relevant to us, as instructive (cf. 2 Tim 3:16). Various aspects of OT politics will prove instructive in different ways, as we consider both the differences and the similarities between their context, both cultural and salvation-historical, and ours. Not only analogous but also contrasting situations can be instructive (5-6).

In addition to the question of the relation between the testaments, there are at least three other hermeneutical issues which constantly arise in considering the Bible’s relevance to politics…Has this or that passage something to say to our political life? “No, because it is about personal ethics, not politics,” we sometimes say. Or: “No, because it is about the social life of the Church, and cannot be applied to society outside the Church.”

We begin with a hermeneutical principle which can be and has been used to render much biblical–especially NT–teaching irrelevant to political issues: the principle of a radical distinction between the ethical principles which apply to immediate personal relations and those which apply to political institutions and activities. According to this principle, the Sermon on the Mount would apply to a politician in her private life, but not in her public activity qua politician. An influential form of this view, though not its most extreme form, was held by Martin Luther.

To some extent he had a valid point. When Jesus’ ethical teaching becomes specific it is most often with reference to personal life. Mt 5:38-42, for example, is not addressed to judges as judges, but to private individuals. But it is doubtful whether any sharp distinction can be drawn between public and private life in the way that Luther’s principle seems to require. The individual is obliged to forgive personal injuries against himself, but this principle will not be enough to guide him in situations where the interests of several people are involved, where other people have been injured or need protection, or where (as a parent, for example) he has a responsibility for the moral education of the person who has done wrong. In such situations forgiveness becomes one duty of love among others. But then no radical difference occurs when we move into political situations. The principle of forgiveness does not become inapplicable, but needs to take appropriate forms in conjunction with other principles of love.

Thus we have the ordinary Christian ethical task of applying the principles of Jesus’ teaching to all the varying situations of life, including the political ones. Of course they will not all apply in all situations…but they must simply be allowed to apply where they do apply. There should be no hermeneutical rule which excludes them from the political sphere.

Another way of limiting the application of NT ethics can also be illustrated from the sixteenth century. Whereas Luther drew a sharp distinction between the private and the public roles of the Christian, the Anabaptists drew a sharp distinction between Christians and others, the Church and the world. The ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, they claimed, govern the whole life of the Christian community but are irreconcilable with the tasks of governing a state, so Christians may not hold public office in the state. Political activity must be left to non-Christians, to whom the Sermon on the Mount is not addressed and of whom a different ethical standard is required. It should be noticed that the extent to which all citizens are implicated in the activities of government, for example by paying taxes, raised problems for this view even in the sixteenth century, In modern democracies the difficulties are greater.

It is one thing to say that Christians should have both the motivation and the spiritual resources to live better lives than others (cf. Mt 5:46-8) and to realize the intentions of God for human community more perfectly in the Church than elsewhere. It is another thing to say that differing ethical principles apply to Christian and others. It is hard to find biblical support for the latter.

This being so, it not only follows that the Sermon on the Mount requires political as well as other forms of implementation. It also follows that fundamental NT principles for life in the Christian community extend in principle to life in human community as such, and therefore have political relevance (7-9).

The general principles of the Decalogue appear here both explicitly as stated principles (e.g. Lev 19:11) and implicitly as the principles behind more specific applications (e.g. vv35-36)…To realize that the law works with general principles, which are sometimes stated explicitly and sometimes remain implicit in more specific commandments, is very important. This chapter contains other general principles besides those of the Decalogue. The love commandment (vv18b,34) is one very general principle…another is the principle of avoiding the religious practices of the Canaanites, which is explicit in 20:23 and implicit in specific commandments of this chapter (vv26-29,31).

Identifying general principles is important because the real purpose of the Law is to inculcate general principles and values and to teach people to apply them in specific instances. This is done by stating general principles and by illustrating, with specific examples, how general principles can be applied in specific cases. The method is formally not unlike that of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, where, for example, the general principle, “Do not resist one who is evil” (Mt 5:39a) is illustrated by specific examples of what this would mean (vv39b-42). There are differences–for example, Jesus chooses deliberately extreme examples to illustrate his point–but the basic similarity is instructive.

But the Law, no more than Jesus, provides exhaustive rules for all specific cases. It may provide more numerous specific rules, but they are still only illustrations, designed to educate people in the spirit of the Law, so that they will learn by analogy how to behave in cases the Law does not mention (24-25).

A familiar feature of politics is the tension between ideal and compromise. There can be no good and effective government without both. In any situation there are severe limits on what is possible, and the task is to seek the closest approximation to the idea that is available in the circumstances. Different circumstances make different possibilities of realizing ideals or implementing principles available. Compromise in this sense is not a bad but a good thing, because it enables ideals to have real effects, rather than remaining merely utopian. But a clear sight of ideals is also important, since, without it, compromise dissolves into unprincipled pragmatism. Utopias combined with realism can set directions that can be embodied in concrete policies, aims and achievements. They also keep alive the continual search for the new or different possibilities of improvement that continually arise in concrete circumstances (ix).

I’m now going to quote from or summarize chapter 9 of Christopher Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (IVP 2004).

Much of this chapter is available in the Google book preview, although that skips some pages:

Wright classifies OT laws according to various topical categories: criminal law, case law, family law, cultic law (further subdivided into sacrificial laws, sacred calendar laws, and symbolic laws), and compassionate law. He carefully explains each category.

He also documents priority structures within the Mosaic law. Everything is not equally important or equally obligatory.

Wright discusses the “authority and relevance of the OT for Christians,” using 2 Tim 3:15-17 as his frame of reference. He also discusses the unity of Scripture.

Moving from generalities to some of the specifics, he says:

So when, as we approach this daunting subject of OT law, asking how it can or should related to Christian ethics, the first thing we must do is to determine to read it within its own OT context and seek to understand its dynamic, its motivations, its theological foundations and social objectives–as far as possible from within, from the perspective of an OT Israelite (insofar as we will ever be able to realistically enter his or her world). Postpone, at least for the moment, the problems of a later era that Paul tackles in argument over the law with Jewish opponents of his Gentile mission. Postpone (preferably further still) the dogmatic and denominational obsessions with this or that way of perceiving the relationship between law and gospel. Our psalmists were not Judaizers… (282-83).

We need to study and classify the laws of the OT against their own social background in ancient Israel, and then discuss what significant moral features or principles emerge within every kind of law they had…This is really nothing more than an application of a fundamental principle of biblical hermeneutics; namely, that the first step towards understanding any biblical text is to ask what it meant within its own historical context, insofar as we can determine what that was (288-89).

We have observed above that there is texture and variation within the law of the OT in terms of the different kinds of law. Not all laws are the same as all other laws in terms of their social function; there are distinctions related to different social contexts, differing kinds of cases, different levels of seriousness and so on. The same is true when we consider the relative moral values expressed within the great variety of law. Not all laws are equally important as all other laws in terms of their moral values.

Even Deuteronomy can propose that the central and most important of God’s requirements on Israel can be reduced to a few key phrases: to fear the Lord, walk in his ways, love him, serve him and obey him (Deut 10:12-13). Micah reduced it still further to three: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Mic 6:8). So it seems appropriate not to try to tackle the whole law as a single solid slab of undifferentiated duties. Rather, we can seek to discern what the primary moral values are within the law. What are its more central priorities? Is there a scale of values inherent in all the variety?

Jesus famously answered with the dual commands–one from Deut 6:4-5 (total love for God), the other from Lev 19:18 (love for one’s neighbor as oneself)–adding that “there is no commandment greater than these.” In other words, here are the primary values, the overriding priorities, that govern the rest of the detailed legislation.

Such expression of moral priorities is found, for example, in the words of Samuel to Saul, “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22), or of God to Israel through Hosea, “I desire mercy not sacrifice, knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:6), or of the voice of wisdom, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice (Prov 21:3).

This probably intentional scale of values is confirmed by Israel’s penal law. Flagrant disregard of the first six commandments carried a mandatory death penalty. For the seventh (adultery), the death penalty was available but there is no record of any occasion when it was carried out, and some scholars think that other options were allowed to the aggrieved husband. The eight (theft) was not sanctioned by the death penalty in normal law (except theft of a person or kidnapping, Exod 21:16; Deut 24:7). The ninth (perjury) would only carry a death penalty if one was caught falsely accusing someone of a crime that would result in their execution (Deut 19:16-21). And it is most unlikely that the tenth commandment was ever the subject of any judicial process. The order of the commandments thus gives some insight into Israel’s hierarchy of values. Roughly speaking, the order was God, family, life, sex, property (305-307).

What are the steps we should take in seeking to move from the world of OT law to the world of contemporary ethical objectives and choices?

1. Distinguish different kinds of law in the text. Here we go back to the second major section above, and seek to classify any given law or group of laws we are studying according to the different kinds of laws that existed in Israelite culture…some laws will fit more than one category. The important thing is that in order to make ethical use of the OT we must first step inside it and understand the law from Israel’s own social perspective.

2.  Analyse the social function and relative status of particular laws and institutions. When dealing with any particular law, we need to ask how it related to and functioned within the overall social system of Israel. Is it central or peripheral to the dominant themes and social objectives we find in the rest of the material? Is it a primary expression of key values and priorities, or does it reinforce other such primary legislation? Or is a modification or a secondary application?

3. Define the objective(s) of the law in Israelite society. Laws in any society are made for a purpose. Laws protect interests. Laws restrict power. Laws try to balance the rights of different and possibly competing groups in society. Laws promote social objectives according to the legislators’ vision of what kind of ideal society they would like to see.

• What kind of situation was this law trying to promote, or prevent?
• Whose interests was this law aiming to protect?
• Who would have benefited from this law and why?
• Whose power was this law trying to restrict and how did it do so?
• What rights and responsibilities are embodied in this law?
• What kind of behavior did this law encourage or discourage?
• What moral principles, values or priorities did this law embody or instantiate?
• What motivation did this law appeal to?
• What sanction or penalty (if any) was attached to this law, and what does that show regarding its relative seriousness or moral priority?

4. Preserve the objective but change the context. Moving at last quite deliberately from the OT world back to our own, we can ask a parallel set of questions about our own context. In the light of the issue we have observed in Israel’s social context and how their laws addressed them, we can seek to identify comparable situations, interests, needs, powers, rights, behaviors and so on, that need to be addressed in our own society (321-323).


  1. Thanks for noticing.


  2. "What I’ve proposed is an essentially defensive policy. Christians have a duty to protect their dependents. They also have a duty to protect the most vulnerable members of society, viz. the young, elderly, disabled, working poor. According to Scripture, loyalty to a good friend is also a social duty."

    It's rather unfortunate that pawns of the Enemy construe defensive Biblical actions as misguided evangelical political activism. Eg., Christians engaged in Pro-Life activities are considered to be political militants who aren't interested in evangelism and the Great Commission.